Dear UT A, In UT A 4, Robin Isaacs made some great points about how it is racist and authoritarian for white anarchists to act as teachers and liberators of non-anarchist people of colour who are assumed to be politically ignorant and oppressed by that ignorance. However, his advice on how to concretely work with movements of people of colour contradicts these initial points. He said that white anarchists who want to work with organizations of people of colour should just show up and do the shit work until they are trusted enough that they can finally teach people about anarchism.
I want to start by saying that I love meeting new people, especially people who on the surface might seem to have few experiences and political ideas in common with me. I love these interactions and the relationships they foster because I am always pleasantly surprised – first by the fact that affinity pops up, sometimes where I least expect it, and by the fact that I am often able to learn from even socially conservative friends and co-workers, and by how we can somehow co-exist within our tensions. My life has meaning not only because of the experiences I share with my comrades but also because of the experiences I share with people at the park, at the daycare centre, at the library, and at work – even people I disagree with.
I am also a revolutionary and a feminist. I don’t always wear my politics on my sleeve, but I certainly would not be able to, in good conscience, spend hours upon hours with individuals without being at least minimally forthcoming about my life, my situation and my political positions. In the best of situations, we tell each other who we are and where we come from, we question each other, we complain about stuff, we crack jokes, and we sometimes argue about everything from how expensive toilet paper is at the corner store to the cost of daycare to media hype about gang violence. I am as honest as I can be in these situations even if this makes me feel vulnerable to suspicion, criticism, and failure.
When I was studying at the University of Guelph, I became peripherally involved with indigenous solidarity work. I decided to volunteer at the aboriginal student centre to learn more about the aboriginal community in Guelph and to help me figure out what my role could be as a white revolutionary with still-developing anti-colonial politics. At first, I did what Isaacs happened to suggest in his interview: “take leadership” from the organization by sweeping floors, stocking the food cupboard shelves, answering the phone and brewing coffee. My reluctance to expose my real political interest lasted about five minutes, because, of course, Aboriginal students asked me what the hell I, a perky white girl, was doing there. And rightfully so.
The result was eight months of regular shifts at the centre, some awesome friendships and some mundane relationships, too. It ended up being about more than political solidarity in the traditional sense. It was also about going bowling together, exchanging Christmas gifts, studying together, and just hanging out. Sometimes I disagreed with political positions expressed by students at the centre and I was vocal about this disagreement, and at other times it wasn’t a big enough deal to say anything. But I never lied or tried to act like a feckless do-gooder who wanted to merely help out. I wanted to learn from the people I hung out with and I hoped my ideas and actions could be of some use to them, too. There were definitely moments of that reciprocity as there are in any genuine relationship.
White anti-racist revolutionaries should seriously build mutually transformative relationships with anybody we choose to work and associate with. Isaacs’ proposed strategy assumes that organized people of colour are idiots who can’t smell a posturing opportunist from a mile away. Furthermore, it assumes that they don’t have anything to offer, and that they don’t already know some of the same presumably “brilliant” stuff that white anarchists know. Lastly, it assumes that white anarchists from the get-go are uninvolved with people of colour in their everyday lives such that any interaction with them must necessarily be manufactured and, thus, contrived. This is simply not true of all white anarchists.
As for showing up to an organization and throwing oneself into shit work – personally, I do shit work not to fool people of colour or Native people into thinking I’m swell, and, therefore, the political positions I reveal two months down the line might have some credibility. I do it because it needs to get done and no organization needs a parasite who refuses to sweep the floor or lick envelopes. Sometimes it makes sense to inhabit a peripheral support position within an organization, but it never makes any sense to lie about political motivations even while in that position. Actually, it would stink if I were to pretend I don’t have a fairly cogent set of political positions so that I can get ahead – in any situation. This is why (now – I thought differently five years ago) I take issue with very broad and vague calls for white radicals to “take,” or unconditionally and uncritically receive, undefined “leadership” from native people and people of colour engaged in struggle.
I don’t think this is what Isaacs is suggesting, but he comes uncomfortably close to saying that white anarchists should pretend to “take leadership” in order to sneak into a position from which they can ultimately “lead” in an essentially racist manner. Ultimately, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his example of concrete actions white anarchists should take was an unfortunate choice that actually contradicts the true meaning and intent of his political position.
I have to end by saying that UT A is doing a fine job of attempting to tackle the messiness of white radicals’ attempts to do solidarity work. I’ve enjoyed and learned lots from all the content about the Six Nations struggle – the OCAP roundtable, the interview with Jan Watson, and most recently Tom Keefer’s contribution. I look forward to extensions of this debate in issues to come.
Yours in struggle,
Caitlin Hewitt-White Toronto